Zuma fends off ANC critics

Jacob Zuma on 20 September, 2010
Image caption Mr Zuma said the party's junior members needed to respect their "seniors"

South Africa's Jacob Zuma was expected to face stinging criticism at the ruling ANC's national general council. Instead, he cemented his leadership of the country's ruling party, writes the BBC's Jonah Fisher.

If this ANC meeting had been a boxing match, the referee might have stepped in after round one.

The week-long gathering of over 2,000 delegates from around South Africa opened with President Jacob Zuma swinging from the hip.

Lambasting those who sowed divisions in the party, he demanded that ANC "juniors" respect their "seniors".

At the back of the room, Julius Malema, the outspoken president of the ANC's Youth League, sunk lower into his chair.

No names were mentioned - that's not ANC style - but everyone in the room knew what was happening.

This was the party heavyweight flexing his muscles against the young pretender.

On the way out of the session, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was seen putting a consoling arm round the youth leader.

Behind closed doors

With the president successfully setting discipline as the theme of the National General Council, Mr Malema was fighting an uphill battle to be heard.

When confrontations did take place, they were well away from the media spotlight.

Image caption Most observers agreed that Mr Zuma renewed his authority over the party

With reports emerging that some had needed a police presence to keep order, the decision to exclude journalists had its logic.

Information was channelled through a series of hand-picked press briefings.

Still, some were alarmingly frank.

Gwede Mantashe, the ANC's general secretary, delivered a report on the state of the party in which he pulled no punches, calling for drastic action to combat the rise of infighting and to correct the damage money was having on the fabric of the party.

The same time the next day, the theme of discipline came up again.

David Makhura, a provincial secretary, said there had been consensus in favour of creating so-called Integrity Committees to deal with misbehaving ANC members.

But however tough the words, it was hard to escape the contradictory imagery coming from the very top - sitting next to Mr Makhura at the press conference was Tony Yengeni, a convicted fraudster who served time in jail in 2006.

Embarrassing stories

Amidst all the talk of divisions, the creation of a media appeals tribunal, which journalists warned could be used to muzzle the press, was expected to be an issue around which delegates would unite.

In fact, the final recommendation were surprisingly pragmatic, some might even say conciliatory.

The ANC called for a public enquiry to be held about the desirability of the tribunal and advised that any panel should be free from both commercial and party political interest.

That would go some way towards re-assuring those worried that the tribunal would be used by the ANC to protect its members from embarrassing stories.

Smarting from Mr Zuma's early blows, Julius Malema spent most of the week nursing his wounds and avoiding the media spotlight. But in the best prize-fighting tradition there still remained, on the last day, the tantalising chance of a comeback.

If Mr Malema could persuade the Council to adopt a policy of nationalisation of mines, it would hand him a victory. Crucially it would also serve as proof that the youth leader's political clout matched his newspaper column inches.

Image caption Julius Malema managed to salvage his honour by the end of the week

Aware of what was at stake, Mr Malema's supporters packed the economic policy commission and forced proceedings late into the night.

Speaking afterwards, former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel described the debate as as "flavoursome as a Durban curry", but the verdict wasn't a clear victory for anybody.

There was no shift in economic policy but the Council mandated the ANC to investigate options in relation to nationalising mines and to revisit the topic in two years' time.

Judging by the cheers of Mr Malema's supporters as the resolution was read out, simply getting nationalisation on the ANC's policy radar amounted to a victory for their man.

So the council ended with the hearty singing of ANC songs and most observers agreeing that Mr Zuma's authority had been renewed and that a bruised Mr Malema had emerged with honour intact.

If the ANC was just about these two men, which of course it isn't, President Zuma probably just edged it on points.

But with no knock-out blow delivered, a rematch on many of the same issues at the ANC's next big congress in 2012 appears a certainty.

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